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Why Lost‘s Web-based ARGs Have Made Us Go ARGH!


As Lost nears its end in 2010, many of its mysteries have yet to be solved, like the strange numbers that seem to haunt Hurley and the rest of the castaways. But if you played 2006’s The Lost Experience, one of the show’s related alternate reality games (ARGs), you would have found a big part of the answer to that mystery years ago.

This discrepancy is due to the mismanagement of the show’s ARGs, which has created canonical problems and led people to focus on wrong elements of the main story. But according to ARG experts, the creators of Lost aren’t all to blame. Instead, the timing between scripted TV drama and the live, fluid nature of ARGs, as well as apprehension on the part of show creators, often lead to unfulfilled resolutions.

ET-LostA mismanaged ARG-show relationship can lead followers to derive unrealistic resolution expectations from both. This is most apparent with The Lost Experience, but all three of Lost’s ARGs so far can be considered frustrating failures. For example, the TV show uses hundreds of “hypertext” signifiers (like Jacob’s reading material) to encourage a deeper, more personal experience for those wishing to explore them. But the numbers are so prevalent on the show they are beyond signifiers, and when Lost explained their backstory through TLE and failed to answer them on the show, canon problems were created.

Canon histories govern the official rules proving the story’s reality within a made-up universe. They make stories logical and give them contextual meaning. Since the creators of Lost don’t consider anything outside the show to be canon, this makes the mystery of the numbers on the show burdensome and possibly false. The ARG for AI, released before the movie’s opening, focused on the mecha-human world of the movie and was very successful, eventually involving 3 million players and hundreds of sites. But the Pinocchio-type storyline in the movie barely explored that world, disappointing many.

Michelle Senderhauf, a pro ARG creator and staff writer at the Alternate Reality Gaming Network, says that revealing the backstory of the numbers separated the TV audience into groups with different levels of involvement.  Which may have been the producers’ intention in the first place — to give ARG players an early treat and drive “passive” show watchers “to search for more meaning.” This would be apropos for a series dealing with personal discovery. But, like Senderhauf says, if they reveal the meaning in the last season, “I wonder if the ARG players will be the ones who feel cheated. The big reveal on the show would have been spoiled by facts they learned years ago through the ARG.”

She says not mentioning a hint or “outright explanation” in the show that next season was a mistake that violated the rules of TV-show ARGs — these projects work best only when they’re fully in sync. The mistake was compounded when the characters spent most of season five in the 1970s-based Dharma Initiative (when much of the history of the numbers takes place, as revealed in TLE), that once again failed to be explained on the show.


Find815_3Wendy Despain, who ran a grassroots ARG for Alias who runs the Quantum Content consultancy (specializing in interactive narrative), Senderhauf says the best ARGs allow players to affect the story while making sure canon isn’t compromised. She says Lost’s “Find 815” ARG, released in 2007 between seasons 3 and 4, was potentially better because its main character only had a tangential connection to the show and the story coincided with that season’s fake plane crash reveal. Unfortunately, though, ARG players’ actions in the game didn’t matter. “They basically watched some videos and played flash games.” A show with a built-in alternate reality and a huge cast like Lost could have produced a great ARG, she says, but it seems like the creators of the Lost ARGs are “scared of letting the players interact with the world.”

But canon discrepancies are likely to come down to real-world problems, notes Wendy Despain, who runs the Quantum Content consultancy (specializing in interactive narrative). She notes that post-production changes and the fact that shows are filmed months before they’re aired impact the alignment of the story and the ARG. Since the show is most important, ARGs or parts of show story lines may fall by the wayside due to a financial or time crunch, as they already have, twice. But this means key pieces like the numbers (and the narrative tricks the show has employed) feel incomplete and sometimes lose their full intent. They’ve made it harder for both ARG players and people just watching the show to find meaning in critical moments by making them wonder whether “a connection or conflict they’ve discovered is a clue or just a canonical mismatch.”

But it might be too much to expect a show made by hundreds of people to work perfectly with an ARG to create a unified, sensible piece of art. For one, there’s not as much money to make on the ARG side as there is in making the show. For now, the ARGs are great value add-ons, Eyeofhorusbuild viewer loyalty, and insure that fanboys get involved to drive the hype. But like Despain says, “Nobody’s going to watch will pay for a TV show that can’t be enjoyed standing on its own two feet.”

As for the final season of the show, it looks like the last ARG has already started, focusing on the Egyptian mythology hinted at throughout the series. I’m willing to find meaning in the ‘magic of mystery‘,  but I just hope they don’t skip on explaining the Temple and the Statue on the show just so that Jack and Kate can make eyes at each other. Again.

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8 Responses to “Why Lost‘s Web-based ARGs Have Made Us Go ARGH!”

  1. Having run virtual characters and social media engagements for broadcast brands, and having spent weeks planning ARGs, it’s very easy to see where the problems lies when it comes to executing ARGs:

    ABC markets the show, and may hire an agency to create assets to do this, like ARGs. Unfortunately, ABC does not produce, film, write or edit the show. Networks may have control of the shows from a high level, but the marketing departments rarely even see an episode before it airs, other than previews.

    Very often networks are leery of trying to get the production company involved in marketing and production companies are leery of giving network marketers access to the show. Of course neither writers or producers are usually very savvy about web2.0 stuff like ARGs. So you see, here is the disconnect. The agency hired to create and execute the ARGs, very rarely has access to anything, other than some notes scribbled down by the writers.

    It would be smart if producers themselves brought in a marketing agency at the very early stages of the show to be involved during production, to soak up the mythos of a show and to work hand-in-hand with the writers to develop a single ARG, structured to las the lifetime of the show. Even if the show gets cancelled, the ARG can be used to wrap things up, keeping viewers from being to pissed at the network.

    So, for any shows getting underway, give me a shout!

  2. Jose Fermoso

    cerran: Don’t you think making the meaning of the numbers available on the net lower their impact as a McGuffin? Part of the point of the post is that you cannot have a revelation like that in only one part of the overall story, w/ the show + the ARG. You don’t have to be a hard-core fan to find out about the numbers — anyone slightly interested can Google the numbers and find out about them. They lose their full McGuffin status. This still leads to storyline confusion because that passive ‘searcher’ won’t have the full context of the ARG game. It ends up functioning in the opposite way it was intended — as a spoiler.

    Clearly, the actor’s strike, financial problems, and the difficult scheduling have had a hand in messing up the ARG-show relationship, leading to part of the story falling through the cracks. But it’s important to note that Lost is a very ambitious show, and I think they’ve done much better than many others in bringing in different story/narrative elements.

  3. labfly

    Canadian TV’s ReGenesis did a much better job weaving the TV storyworld & ARG – i think the ReGenesis team had a better understanding of the ARG genre than the people who are producing for the networks right now.

  4. cerran

    Just some corrections:

    1) They’re never going to answer what the numbers are in the show. The ARG was meant to answer the question literally for hardcore fans who wanted an answer… but I think, in terms of the show’s narrative, the numbers will be a MacGuffin of sorts that will never be directly explained, sort of adding to the show’s rapture with mystery pervading its characters’ everyday lives.

    2) The new ARG you mentioned at the end of the article is a confirmed hoax.

    3) And, just IMHO, the show’s mythology is so sprawling that viewers who want to increase their engagement with the show would do fine just studying past episodes. The stuff written on the blast door map has more intel than any auxiliary ABC-run web initiative.